Musings on Urban Form: Is Brooklyn the Ultimate City?


It’s clear we need a new lexicon for emerging urban forms that are neither urban nor suburban in character. Yet when you raise that issue, you elicit some strongly held views — most of them negative — about whether anything other than a “real city” with its bad sections, panhandlers, and industrial areas can qualify as urban.

I feel it is increasingly difficult to make such distinctions. This is particularly true as we observe the rapidly changing character of inner-ring suburbs in particular, as well as the innumerable “new towns” that have sprouted up in what would otherwise clearly be suburban or even exurban locales.

One commenter suggested, thusly, that places like my home town, the City of Falls Church, Virginia, lacks the “authenticity” to be a real city:

Planned and tightly controlled cities are not "real".

Real cities have panhandlers.
Real cities have plenty of Class-D space.
Real cities have ethnically diverse populations.

Call me in 30 years and by then the City of Falls Church may be a real city

Ironically, based on the foregoing litmus test, Falls Church is two-thirds of the way toward being a “real” city. It has both panhandlers and at least some “Class-D” space; however, it admittedly lacks an ethnically diverse population. As to the assertion that “real” cities are neither “planned” nor “tightly controlled,” with the exception of perhaps Houston, Texas, I cannot identify a single city in America that was not planned, and the extent to which growth is “tightly controlled” in these real cities is certainly subject to debate.

So what makes a real city? On a recent visit to Brooklyn, once largely considered a suburban appendage to New York, I found what is perhaps the standard-bearer of what it means to be a “real” city. And, if anything, Manhattan is arguably becoming an “appendage” to Brooklyn.

I suspect that the average person knows that the City of New York – comprised of five boroughs including Manhattan and Brooklyn – is the most populous city in the United States (although there are some who mistakenly believe it is the City and County of Los Angeles, confusing Los Angeles County’s population with that of the city by the same name). In fact, if Brooklyn were an independent jurisdiction – which it was until 1898 when it was consolidated with New York City – it would be the country’s fourth largest after New York, L.A. and Chicago, with a residential population exceeding 2.5 million. Interestingly, that number represents an increase of over 275,000 people since 1980 (277,884 to be exact, which is more than the entire population of St. Paul, MN), although it represents an overall decrease in population since Brooklyn reached it residential apex in 1950 at over 2.7 million.

Moreover, based on population density, with over 35,600 residents per square mile (2,528,050 residents as of 2006, in a 71 square mile area), Brooklyn would be the densest city in America.

By contrast, the population density of the rest of New York City (which includes somewhat less dense Queens and positively suburban Staten Island), San Francisco (at over 16,000 residents/sq. mi.), Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. – in that order – are all denser than L.A., which has a population density of less than 8,000 residents/sq. mi. or approximately 22% of the density of Brooklyn. Consider Brooklyn’s Brown-Wood Cemetery: If its “residents” were alive today, it would be the 24th largest city in the U.S., just ahead of Seattle but slightly behind Milwaukee.

But neither total population nor population density makes the case for my suggestion that Brooklyn is America’s quintessential city, ahead of even Manhattan. First, Brooklyn reflects a much more holistic melding of complimentary land uses, with residential, commercial, institutional, recreational, and retail and entertainment in close proximity of each other in many of its neighborhoods.

Manhattan, on the other hand, is much more Balkanized, with its various land uses much more clustered together, to the point of edging out other, potentially complimentary uses. That is not to say that there are no residential neighborhoods in Manhattan per se: However, Manhattan, like many of San Francisco’s nicer neighborhoods, is a great place to live only if money is not an obstacle. Finally, Manhattan has a much-more transitory culture, whereas Brooklyn has become a preferred place for “New Yorkers” of modest to moderate means to settle down and raise a family.

Like a model city, Brooklyn manages to accommodate its density extremely well. First of all, like San Francisco, Brooklyn is a city of neighborhoods. Bedford Stuyvesant, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Flatbush, Park Slope and Williamsburg are some of the more notable among Brooklyn’s 32 neighborhoods. It is remarkable, given Brooklyn’s density, that much of its housing stock is comprised of three and four-story brownstones, along with mid-rise apartment and coop buildings. For example, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, with a combined neighborhood population of almost 105,000 (slightly more residents than South Bend, Indiana and just under the population of Clearwater, Florida), have a wonderful scale both to their residential streets and their main commercial thoroughfare, 5th Avenue. They achieve a very walkable and synergistic mix of homes and businesses, as well as public and institutional uses.

However, it is arguably the incredible diversity of Brooklyn’s residents that define it as a “real” city. Less than 35% of the population of Brooklyn is white/non-Hispanic, over 36% is Black or African-American, and almost 20% is Latino or Hispanic. Almost 38% of Brooklyn’s population was born somewhere other than the U.S., almost 47% speak a language other than English at home, and a total of 110 ethnic origins are represented among its population.

The median income in Brooklyn is just under $30,000 per year. However, the median price of a home (all types) is $490,000. The median price for co ops is $267,500, representing approximately 25% of the housing market. The median-priced condo is $514,216, representing approximately 28% of the market. Just under half of the Brooklyn for-sale market is comprised of one- to three-family dwellings, with a median sales price of $584,250. Not surprisingly, however, most of Brooklyn’s housing stock is rental housing.

Without a doubt, Brooklyn is the melting pot of the world, with a tremendous amount of social, ethnic, and economic diversity, all coexisting in a 71 square mile area. So while there may be disagreement about how to best characterize the City of Falls Church in the suburban-to-urban spectrum, Brooklyn establishes the benchmark for a “real city,” even if it is not, in fact, a city in the legal sense of the word.

Peter Smirniotopoulos, Vice President – Development of UniDev, LLC, is based in the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and works throughout the U.S. He is on the faculty of the Masters in Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed herein are solely his own.

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Note from a Brooklynite

Great post, and thank you for recognizing the virtues of our borough. To give you a sense of how people in Brooklyn feel about Manhattan, when someone is going to take the subway into Midtown or the Village they say they're going "into the city." "The City" is the other. We're Brooklyn.

Hey speaking of the subway.... I appreciate your many interesting statistics (who knew that cemetary had more people that Seattle?!), but when defining a "real city," in my opinion, there's basically one rule of thumb, and it's hard to express as a number: show me a place where you can live a good life without owning a car, and I'll show you an unquestionably Real City.

I've lived here in Brooklyn eleven years. The same apartment (in between Park Slope and Cobble Hill) for ten. Before this, I lived in suburban Indianapolis and small-town indiana. Loved the small town, and love the big city. Why? Because you could own a car in both places, but you could also live well without one. That's what makes a real urban place.

Quest for the Edge

Mr. Smirniotopoulos,

An excellent discussion of current urban conditions in Brooklyn. The notion of "edge" pertaining to urbanity is presented at the beginning and begs for more discussion.

We are in a period where cities have multiple and conflicting edges, making the definition more difficult. Perhaps it is a condition more akin to an ecotone -- that is, a transitional area -- rather than an edge, which implies hardness and clear definition.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL